For more than 60 years, Margret RoadKnight has been interpreting songs in the folk, blues and jazz traditions. Her new album, LONG TIME…, is her latest attempt to preserve songs from extinction. By Andy Hazel.

Singer Margret RoadKnight

Greyscale image of an elderly woman sitting on a park bench as she plays a guitar.
Singer Margret RoadKnight outside her home in Melbourne.
Credit: Paul RoadKnight

“I’m on the fringes of everything. I called one of my albums Fringe Benefits, and people thought I was talking about money,” says Australian folk legend Margret RoadKnight. “I know the benefits of not being part of the mainstream.”

Two weeks ago, her second digital release, LONG TIME… (Recorded 1988–2023), arrived on streaming services. Such is her stature that when she invites me to her home in a retirement village in Melbourne’s inner north, it’s a slightly intimidating experience. Known for being well versed in music history, plain-spoken and very tall, RoadKnight arrives to meet me in loose-fitting clothes and a cloud of purple hair blossoming down over her shoulders, giving her an almost regal appearance.

“It’s like Midsomer Murders here,” she says, as we follow a leafy laneway past heritage-listed red-brick cottages. “Without the murders.” She points out the flagstone by her doorway that dates her home to 1891 and lets me into a room filled with records, compact discs, musical instruments, shelves overflowing with songbooks and a guitar only a few years younger than the house.

After offering apple cider and bringing out slices of cake made by her neighbours, she stands, her hair brushing perilously close to a low-spinning ceiling fan. “It’s the big three Os this year,” says RoadKnight. “Eighty years of life, 60 years of performing and 50 years since my first album.”

Riding Melbourne’s early wave of folk music in the 1960s, a time when “every second place was a coffee lounge”, RoadKnight was a mainstay at what would become the world’s longest-running seven-nights-a-week folk music venue, Frank Traynor’s Folk and Jazz Club. Later she fronted the house band, Frank Traynor’s Jazz Preachers.

As Black American music became available and record labels began distributing music from other parts of the world, RoadKnight, along with millions of other Australians, became aware of a colossal range of new music, much of it given the designation “international folk music” by the country’s record stores. On the charts, adaptations of folk songs from sub-Saharan Africa (“The Lion Sleeps Tonight”), Russia (“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”), and Cuba (“Guantanamera”) sold millions of copies and became fixtures in popular culture.

“For a minute there, folk music was huge,” RoadKnight says. “Up until then we were unaware that this body of material even existed, but once it started to emerge, we all dived in. We listened to bush ballads and Bulgarian village music and Chinese lullabies: there was a whole world out there that we were never exposed to in a regular suburban Australian upbringing. It was very exciting. And you had to go out on an exploratory path to find it, which was a plus in a way, unlike today.”

Although the folk community was closely bound with progressive politics, RoadKnight’s Irish Catholic upbringing meant she was comparatively right wing when she entered the scene. In an interview with the Australian Music Vault, RoadKnight describes her initial impression of protest songs as “pathetic”, lacking in subtlety, melody and poetry: just a slogan set to a chant. It wasn’t until she learnt Malvina Reynolds’ “What Have They Done to the Rain?”, an anti-nuclear song that never mentions nuclear war, that her outlook changed.

“I didn’t go to university,” she tells me. “I just found the folk scene, in its broadest manifestation, my education. Through hanging around in that scene, you’d discover politics and poetry, parody, history, geography and culture. I never felt that I was uneducated, I had discovered this other world.

“At one stage I was singing songs in 22 different languages – not necessarily well – but here’s a Bolivian dance song…” She leans forward in her chair and stamps her foot in a hop-step rhythm. “Pollerita, pollerita de mi cholita,” she sings in a clear, high voice. “Somebody who spoke Spanish would probably say, ‘Oh, don’t do that’, but nobody else was singing that song here. Nobody else was singing West African songs or playing the African thumb piano. I am pretty sure I was the first person here to be doing that, certainly the first out there doing it so people heard it.” She gestures to the instrument, also known as a kalimba, on her mantelpiece. “You wouldn’t start doing that now, but I still trot out the kalimba because I just love the sound.”

On LONG TIME…, RoadKnight’s kalimba can be heard accompanying her interpretation of the Irish folk song “Women of Ireland”, in which she uses a droning vocal technique similar to the throat-singing of Central Asia. This open-border approach to songs and styles has been a part of her practice since she began. Looking around her room and later watching her dance and sing, it’s clear it is still a source of immense joy.

“I never understood why I landed mostly interested in Black music,” she says. “It was pretty weird. Now, you’d have to think twice about it. Nowadays, everybody is doing their own stuff. Most singers are songwriters, so all of these brilliant people and songs are going to disappear. If I don’t do something, they’ll disappear. That’s a grand statement, but it’s true. Nobody else is singing them.”

Traditionally folk songs have been collected to preserve a sense of nationhood and cultural identity. Music historians such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp spent decades visiting towns across Britain to transcribe and notate traditional songs, which, Sharp hoped, would create “a better citizen, and a truer patriot”. Conversely, RoadKnight’s repertoire revels in diversity.

“Half of those early folk festivals were workshops and seminars on bush ballads, people talking, academics, collectors – you’d just front up and you’d learn stuff. The organisers were wary of making it too commercial, they didn’t want the folk performers to be too slick.” RoadKnight adopts the tone of an overzealous promoter: “Beware, you might become popular!”

Success touched Melbourne’s folk community in the early 1960s with The Seekers, whose singer, Judith Durham, RoadKnight replaced in Frank Traynor’s Jazz Preachers. In 1964, while The Seekers were on their way to becoming the first internationally successful Australian band – later topping charts around the world with “The Carnival is Over”, their adaptation of the Russian folk song “Stenka Razin” – RoadKnight followed her new love of Black gospel music. She saw the travelling Broadway show Black Nativity seven times. The show’s star, Professor Alex Bradford, a soul music progenitor who worked with Mahalia Jackson, repaid the gesture. After seeing RoadKnight perform, he asked her to join the ensemble and made plans to record an album with her.

“Bradford thought, This white folk scene is pretty big, let’s find a white folk singer who can work with this Black gospel group,” she says. “We didn’t use the term fusion music then, but that’s basically what it was.”

Within weeks RoadKnight had joined the troupe in Sydney and, while the album never eventuated, the experience pushed her into music full-time. “I’ve never auditioned for things,” she says. “I can always link what I do back to folk singing. I’ve never thought, Oh look, folk’s dying, I’m going to be an Ella Fitzgerald or something. I could sing that stuff, but…” she pauses. “Folk music has context. With Cole Porter, you admire the tune and the clever use of lyrics, but it doesn’t tell you something or take you anywhere or resonate. With folk, there is always a story behind it.”

Over the next few years, RoadKnight organised concerts at venues such as the Emerald Hill Theatre, the TF Much Ballroom and Dallas Brooks Hall, where she curated a line-up that included Afro–Cuban drummers and the cream of Australia’s jazz musicians and American gospel singers. RoadKnight also played the Sunbury Pop Festival and became a fixture at what would become the National Folk Festival.

To illustrate what those events were like, she takes her phone and shows me a flyer for a festival named The Miracle that took place on March 29 and 30, 1970, in the Victorian town of Launching Place. She reels off names of acts including big local rock bands of the era such as Tully, Chain, Spectrum and Max Merritt and the Meteors. “Three women over two days,” she says, arching her brow. “Sunbury was two women over three days. People used to say, ‘Were you discriminated against because you were a woman performer?’ I was more discriminated against on the basis of genre than gender. Women were discriminated against, but I was always the exception. Partly because I wasn’t too wimpy. I was edgy enough to not be folksy. I’d say, ‘I might do folk music but I’m not a folkie and I don’t do folksy.’ ”

By the time she played at The Miracle, RoadKnight was already in her “have guitar, will travel” phase. She took the first of many trips to the United States, where she performed and formed lasting friendships with key figures in the folk scene, including Malvina Reynolds, Odetta and Ellen McIlwaine. On her return she moved into concert promotion, touring artists she describes as “people who should be better known”, such as McIlwaine, Holly Near, Mickey Newbury and Frankie Armstrong.

In 1973, she recorded her first album, People Get Ready, followed three years later by her self-titled album, which featured her sole hit song, “Girls in Our Town”. An enduring ballad, the song charts the lives of girls in country towns, from dropping out of school to take low-paying jobs to becoming young mothers and rearing their daughters to do the same. RoadKnight’s voice is an incredibly versatile instrument, but for her best-known song she all but gets out of its way. “That song is a little gem,” she says. “I don’t need to put the RoadKnight stamp on it. It’s a bit of reportage. Let it speak for itself.”

The RoadKnight stamp comes, she says, not only from the choices she makes in a song’s arrangement and her delivery but also from its selection. That she is an interpreter and not a songwriter invests her choices with significance. “I look at all the songbooks I’ve got and think, Oh yeah, that’s a good song,” she says. “If I’ve forgotten I’ve sung it or how to sing it, then certainly the audience has. It reminds you how excited you were to learn this song and perform it.”

To illustrate one of the songs preserved in her new album, “My Little Guitar” by her old friend Malvina Reynolds, she pulls out a small guitar case from next to a bookshelf, its surface speckled with stickers: No nukes!, whale hotline, Love Records. Inside is the titular instrument, an 1897 Washburn parlour guitar once owned by Reynolds that RoadKnight is pictured playing on the front cover.

As I gingerly pick out some chords, she heads to her stereo to cue up her version of Spectrum’s 1971 hit “I’ll Be Gone”, which features wailing slide guitar from McIlwaine, another friend. RoadKnight gazes out her window, singing along with herself, clapping, dancing and briefly seeming to forget I’m there at all.

She lets the CD play into the next track, a short song of Reynolds’ named “The Moment”: “My whole long life of wonder, of happiness and pain / And it was such a dreadful mess / I’ll never die again.” RoadKnight laughs as if she’s hearing it for the first time. “It’s terrific, isn’t it?”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 11, 2023 as "Fringe dweller".

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